Plan would make course evaluations public

SBy Jake Weyer Students signing up for classes in the future could find more to base their decisions on than course numbers, class times and professors’ names.

Student government leaders say they will push to make the results of students’ end-of-semester course evaluations available to the public. Some faculty members oppose the plan, however, citing teaching and privacy concerns.

Currently, only certain faculty members have access to the results. Department chairs and committees use course evaluations during annual faculty reviews to make decisions on salary increases, promotions and tenure.

While faculty and staff members said the forms play a critical role, some students claim evaluation results mean little if students cannot see them.

“If students knew they could see the results, I think they would care more,” professional music senior Nicole Swanson said.

Publicly displaying evaluation statistics would make professors better teachers and provide students with an incentive to think critically about the bubbles they fill in and the comments they write on evaluations, said Scott LeBlanc, Student Senate Consultative Committee chairman.

Posting evaluation results publicly could also give students an idea of what professors are like before signing up for courses, he said.

Not everyone is in favor of posting evaluation results for all to see.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Kenneth Heller, University professor and associate head of the physics department. “If you start making things public, it stifles honest communications. It’s not a ratings game.”

Heller said posting evaluations on the Internet could discourage teachers from trying new teaching methods in the classroom for fear of receiving poor evaluations.

A professor’s job is to stimulate students to think differently, Heller said. “You ought to piss off some fraction of the students if you’re really doing your job.”

Wayne Gladfelter, chairman of the University’s chemistry department, said emphasizing evaluations too heavily might lead professors to make exams easier and result in higher grades.

Some students do not agree that student evaluations would cause grade inflation.

Any increase in grades would be the result of better teaching, LeBlanc said.

Instructors can voluntarily post portions of their course evaluation results on the University’s One Stop Web site. With an instructor’s approval, average scores from the “student release” section of evaluations for any course can be published online.

The student release section is a set of standardized questions found on every department’s evaluations that were authorized by the University Senate, which comprises faculty, staff and students from all University campuses.

University plant biology professor Susan Mary Wick has allowed evaluation statistics from several of her courses to be published on the Web.

“I think it’s fair to give some impression of what professors are like,” Wick said.

But Wick does not advocate requiring all instructors’ evaluation results to be publicly posted.

“It doesn’t seem right to force professors to do it,” she said.

University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said under the Minnesota Data Practices Act, information collected by the University on its employees is private. In order to publicly release results, the evaluations would need to be conducted by an outside organization such as a student group, he said.

Employees can choose to waive their rights to the act, Rotenberg said. That is why some University instructors can post their results online.

Making all evaluation results public cannot be done overnight, if at all, Vice Provost Craig Swan said.

The Minnesota Student Association will have to work with the University Senate’s Educational Policy Committee to take action on the issue. The committee might decide to form a subcommittee to look into the issue.

With enough support, the proposal would then go to the University Senate. If the University Senate decides to take action, the proposal could become a recommendation to the administration.

University Senate members said there is no telling how long it could take to become policy.

“I’ve seen items bounce around for a year or more before anything happens,” said Gary Engstrand, University Senate secretary.

MSA President Eric Dyer said there is no set date for when serious discussions will begin.

If the University adopts a policy of public evaluations, it will not be the first institution to do so.

“It does happen at other universities,” College of Liberal Arts dean Steven Rosenstone said. “I believe the sun still comes up in the morning at those schools.”

Rosenstone said he holds no position on the issue.

Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., has made student course evaluations available to students since the 1970s, said Nedra Hardy, an employee in Northwestern’s office of the registrar. Northwestern began posting evaluations online in 1992 after publishing them in a booklet for many years, Hardy said.

“I wouldn’t take a class if a professor had poor ratings – unless it was required,” Northwestern senior Emily Collins said.

Professors at the University of Minnesota say required courses will result in classes filling early, making students unable to pick and choose.

“We know we could do better,” Heller said. “In an ideal world, students would walk in the door and tell professors what they thought of them.”

Jake Weyer welcomes comments at [email protected]